Abbotsford Panthers making the jump to AAA for 2016 (with video)

Abbotsford Senior varsity team set to take on all new opponents after moving up

Panthers running back Samwell Uko shakes off a Mission defender earlier this year. Uko is expected to be a key player for the Panthers in 2016.

Panthers running back Samwell Uko shakes off a Mission defender earlier this year. Uko is expected to be a key player for the Panthers in 2016.

Lose Chase Claypool, and move up to AAA.

That’s what the Abbotsford Panthers senior varsity team is facing for the 2016 BC high school football season.

With one of the top players in the school’s history suiting up for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this fall, the Panthers were expecting to rebuild and look to once again reach the AA provincial final in 2016.

That is, until a vote that moved the team up to AAA occurred earlier this month. The move was made official on Sept. 14, and it meant the AA-top ranked Panthers would make the jump to AAA.

Panthers head coach Jay Fujimura said the timing wasn’t ideal, but that his team is up for the move.

“I’m not going to complain about it,” he said. “I think our guys will step up to the challenge.”

The move to AAA means the Panthers will take on bigger and more established schools. Fujimura said it could be a trying year, as the team deals with growing pains.

“We were ranked number one in AA,” he said. “I’m not sure we’re even top eight in AAA. The transition will be tough, and there’s a lot we have to prepare for that we haven’t seen before. It’s a whole new group of teams and it will be adjustment but I think the guys are ready.”

Abbotsford has looked good in two exhibition games this season, beating Mission 34-12 on Sept. 9 and defeating Centennial 28-20 on Sept. 16. Fujimura said he’s liked what he’s seen so far, but some work is needed.

“We’re coming together and the last two weeks we came out with victories but did so the hard way,” he said, pointing out that the team committed six turnovers in the first half against Centennial. “Our defence was able to sustain against Centennial and give us a chance to win so that was pretty big. We need to limit those mistakes if we want to have success down the road.”

Some familiar faces on both sides of the ball should be key players for the Panthers in 2016. Returning quarterback John Madigan and wide receivers Reese Morrison and Tanner Marquart should fuel the offence. Defensive stars on the team include linebackers Maasin Thompson and Johnny Stevenson and lineman Taylor Mante.

An emerging star for 2016 is running back Samwell Uko. The Grade 11 student had a monster game against Centennial, picking up 300 yards on offence and scoring two touchdowns.

Fujimura said he wants his players to compete every week and improve, but added that he would like to see the Panthers qualify for the playoffs. Abbotsford will compete against Surrey’s Earl Marriot, West Vancouver, Rutland and Handsworth in the AAA’s Pacific Division for 2016.

The Panthers continue their exhibition run on the road against Vernon on Saturday, and then conclude the preseason against the Robert Bateman Timberwolves on Oct. 1. Abbotsford opens the AAA regular season on Oct. 7, when they host West Vancouver.

The Panthers also host Earl Marriot on Oct. 14, before hitting the road on Oct. 28 when they travel to Kelowna to take on the Rutland Senior Secondary Voodoos.